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Poet's Work Probes Mind of Serial Killer Randy Kraft : Writing: 'I want to understand the meaning of violence for our times,' says Robert Peters, who will perform work tonight in Santa Ana.

January 06, 1992|JESS BRAVIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Throughout six years in jail, a 13-month trial and two years on Death Row, only one motive has officially been attributed to Randy Kraft, convicted of the sex murders of 16 young men and suspected of killing more than 60.

Kraft, a close friend told police, had once said he had heard that "the ultimate orgasm is in death."

Whether Kraft, now 46, believed that--or what precisely it meant--may never be known; the Long Beach computer consultant has maintained his innocence and refused to discuss his case as it inches through the appellate courts.

But for poet Robert Peters, who attended portions of Kraft's trial in Santa Ana two years ago, the serial killer's silence provides the starting point for his own explorations into the mind of a monster.

Tonight, Peters, a 67-year-old English professor at UC Irvine, will don jeans and leather jacket like those Kraft wore while cruising gay bars and Marine depots for his victims and perform his latest piece: "Railroad Spikes on a Bed of Shaved Ice."

In it, Peters will portray a character he says is very much inspired by Kraft--an educated, complex and bitterly ironic man, hateful of his own homosexuality, contemptuous of those around him, bent on expressing his rage and lust through gruesome, sadistic violence.

"I try to take the audience into a gamut of feelings, from his feeling very vulnerable and wanting them to understand him, to being very arrogant to being lost in his own psyche," Peters said in a recent interview from his home in Huntington Beach. "Finally, I try to explore his speculation on killing as a way of finally loving."

The work--whose companion piece, a set of "prose poems" entitled "Snapshots for a Serial Killer: A Fiction," is scheduled for spring publication--begins with Peters' image of the seduction of a victim:

My Mustang's a great car. My leather jacket is great. Bought it four years ago at a great leather store in San Francisco. My stash of pills is great. Hey you, lover boy. Your haircut is great. But you've muddied your great boots. Come on. Get in my great car. We'll rev north past all the sleeping condos and oil wells. . . .

Through the work, the character recounts childhood memories of killing small animals, sexual explorations with girls and other boys, relationships with relatives, friends and strangers. He is brutally funny at times, such as in a stroll through Disneyland. And in others, when having sex with drugged and mutilated victims, he is chillingly brutal.

"I've always been fascinated by the ideas of beauty and violence, beauty and disease, and the juxtaposition of these things in life," said Peters, whose best-known work may be "The Blood Countess," inspired by a 16th-Century Hungarian noblewoman said to have murdered 700 women.

Like the Kraft piece, Peters wrote both reading and performance versions of "The Blood Countess"--and toured the country, doing one-man shows as the the notorious Erzebet Bathory, who bathed in her victims' blood.

"I want to understand the meaning of violence for our times, the business of violence in films and on TV and on the freeways," Peters said. "As I have my countess say at one point, our obsession with violence is the central mystery of our time."

In Kraft, Peters said, he found the perfect vehicle for exploring that mystery, if not the perfect communicator of that mystery: Kraft never testified at his trial.

Kraft's killing spree began in 1972, and only ended in 1983 when Highway Patrolmen pulled over his weaving car near Mission Viejo and discovered a dead Marine in the passenger seat.

Yet, "if you saw this guy on the street, you wouldn't think he was a murderer. You'd think he was a yuppie," Peters said of Kraft, who prided himself on his sporty cars, home improvements and healthful vegetarian diet.

"He's very literate, and so the language he uses can be beautiful and the imagery can be beautiful--there can be an incredible distance between the shocking quality of some of the subject matter and the beauty of the writing.

"When the play really works, although he is a monster and a ruthless killer, in a crazy way he makes you feel empathy for him. It's a very disturbing work."

Audiences--judging by the numbers who have walked out on Peters' previous readings of his work-in-progress--apparently agree.

"People were shocked when Bob began to read," said Clair Peterson, a bookstore manager who followed Peters as a speaker at a Cal State L.A. writers' conference in June. "Combine this dark vision with the fact that Bob is a superb actor, and it can truly frighten people.

"He writes very convincingly from the viewpoint of darkness, and looking at the world we live in, there's a lot of darkness out there. Bob makes us look at the kinship we have with it, whether we like it or not."

Many, however, may not want to explore the kinship.

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